From cutting costs to freeing up brokers to meet clients, ditching the office has a lot to offer if you can get it right, explains virtual working expert Ruth MacKay
The traditional boundaries of office-based work no longer apply in the modern business environment. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile technology, professionals can now work from home, on the road, in their favourite café or almost anywhere there is a good internet connection. Never before have workers had so much autonomy over when, where and how they work.
This brings a long list of benefits to the forward-thinking companies that are using virtual workforces to maximise their competitive advantage, attract and retain the best talent, and become first-choice employers, all while cutting overhead costs and increasing productivity.
However, running a successful virtual workforce requires a completely new management philosophy. Traditionally, the manager’s role was to supervise, direct and interact face-to-face with employees. For most managers, that was easy. With employees at their desks from nine to five, managers could stop by at any time and check in. Now they’re asking: “How can we maintain solid oversight while allowing our employees the freedom to work virtually?”
That’s a good question, and one that can only be answered with solid planning, training and a top-down understanding of how to implement, integrate and manage a virtual workforce designed to address the challenges of doing business in the 21st century. Follow these four steps to build an effective virtual workforce that will take your business to the next level.
STEP 1: Evaluate
Not every business is the same, so there is no one-size-fits-all virtual workforce that you can simply drag and drop into play. Some businesses will be more suited to a virtual workforce than others, as will certain business units within your company. Take some time to carefully evaluate your business for strategic fit by considering the following:
- How might a virtual workforce increase your competitive advantage? Consider how a mobile workforce might be able to outpace your competition by providing your clients with on-location service.
- How will a virtual workforce impact your market position? Without the overhead drain of maintaining a bricks-and-mortar office, you may be able to offer discounts to high-value clients or become a lower-cost provider.
- Will a virtual workforce open entry into new markets? Having employees stationed around the country and even around the globe, operating in a range of time zones, may open up new opportunities to expand your territory and enter new markets.
- What is your competition doing? If they have moved or are moving to a virtual workforce, you are definitely at risk of being left behind the eight ball.
STEP 2: Asses
Virtual workforces offer a range of potential benefits, but they also require investment in key areas to ensure maximum effectiveness. As with every business decision, you must assess the benefits against the costs to determine if a virtual workforce is the right fit for your organisation. Here’s some food for thought to get you started:
- The reduction in employee commuting time increases flexibility and improves work–life balance. This leads to reductions in staff attrition and associated recruitment and training costs.
- Fewer in-office distractions can improve employee productivity and boost motivation and engagement.
- Cutting overhead costs may offer an opportunity to rethink your pricing structure and improve your competitive advantage.
- Staff stationed in various locations offers the potential to improve client relationships via face-to-face visits.
- Investment in new software and hardware technology to support the virtual model will be required.
- Initial management training will also be required to convert to virtual workforce management practices and techniques.
- Training and support will be needed to assist employees as they transition to the new technology and work philosophy.
- Resources may be required to ensure buy-in up and down the management chain to prevent resistance.
STEP 3: Implement
Once your evaluation and assessment are complete, it’s time to enter the implementation stage. Running a pilot program provides a positive pathway to transitioning to a virtual workforce in one part of your business without impacting overall operations. Most important, you must have the various business units take full ownership of the transition to ensure they have clearly identified both the opportunities and the risks within a virtual workforce. Also, your managers will need to be trained and motivated so they are up to the challenge of effectively leading their virtual employees. To run a successful pilot project, ensure that:
- Software and hardware selection and application are approved by all of the company’s units.
- Sales and IT have worked with all areas of management to identify the most effective management of software, hardware and support.
- Each business unit has clearly written policies that can be easily distributed to your virtual employees.
During your pilot program, look for gaps that might require training, new technology or infrastructure. Also, recruit staff – either internally or externally – with the attributes required to work virtually. Plan out the scope, tasks, timing, resourcing, costs and acceptance criteria (use these as these as the basis for your ongoing management metrics) so that the transition is as seamless as possible.
Be disciplined in completing the plan, and after a meaningful period (this should represent at least one complete business cycle), measure outcomes to goals. This will enable you to construct a new project plan that offers solutions to the gaps in the initial cycle. This may be improved by utilising relevant outside expertise.
STEP 4: Launch
Your pilot project will have lessened the overall risk while gaining much-needed support for the virtual model across your organisation. With all your evaluations, assessments and planning in place, it’s now time to pick a specifi c date to launch – because the only way you can identify what will work and what will need improvement is by doing it.
Ruth MacKay is the founder and managing director of Ourtel Solutions, where she manages a 100% virtual workforce. She is passionate about helping businesses gain a competitive advantage, improve profits and retain top talent by leveraging proven virtual workforce models. MacKay is also the author of the new book The 21st Century Workforce. For more information, visit ourtelsolutions.com